by: Caroline Westbrook - Last updated: 2005-11-23
Over the past decade Liev Schreiber has made his mark on the big screen in a range of movies, from small quirky projects such as 60s drama A Walk On The Moon and Holocaust movie Jakob The Liar (alongside Robin Williams), to blockbusters including The Sum Of All Fears and The Manchurian Candidate. He's also a renowned stage star, most recently treading the boards in David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross on Broadway.
However, he's ventured behind the camera for his latest project, directing the quirky comedy-drama Everything Is Illuminated. Based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, the film stars Elijah Wood as a neurotic young Jewish man who heads for Ukraine in search of the woman who he believes saved his grandfather from the Nazis. His companions on this unusual road trip are a pair of Ukranian tour guides, Alex (played by newcomer Eugene Hutz) and his crochety grandfather (Boris Leskin) as well as their mildly unstable dog, Sammy Davis Jr Jr.
The film is a mix of fish-out-of-water comedy and powerful drama, and it's already picked up plenty of critical acclaim in the US where it was released a couple of months ago. It was also recently screened at the London Film Festival and the UK Jewish Film Festival. To mark its release in UK cinemas on November 25, SJ caught up with 38-year-old Schreiber for a chat about the film, as well as his own Jewish heritage and background.
When it came to choosing a project for your directorial debut, what made you choose Everything Is Illuminated?
For me, it was that my own grandfather was a Ukranian Jewish immigrant, and when he died I was writing a lot and particularly in the arena of dealing with memory and connectedness and relatedness as very big issues in my own personal life at that time, so I wrote a screenplay about an American whose grandfather dies and he goes to Ukraine to investigate his heritage, and he expects to be met with open arms as the returning hero, and ends up being hustled and robbed and left penniless in the streets of Odessa, and at that time that was my very dark interpretation of bridging cultural gaps. And then I read Jonathan's book and at first I was very angry at how young he was, and very envious that he had achieved in 15 pages because initially what I read was a piece of short fiction called A Very Rigid Search, which is in all fairness what I adapted the film from in that 15 pages he had accurately pinned the tail on the donkey in so far as what I was trying to do emotionally and stylistically. So we met, and we talked about being Jewish, and we talked about our grandfathers, and their sense of humour, and we talked about Seinfeld, and we talked about September 11, and a lot of things, we spent a lot of time together, and then he produced a plastic bag with the script for Illuminated and said,' this is part of the book', and gave it to me to read, and agreed a couple of days later to let me adapt the short story.
Had you been looking to make the move behind the camera for a while or was it just a case of finding a project that inspired you?
I'd been thinking about it a lot, but it was a question of finding material that warranted it, and having a lot of friends who are directors I knew the price, and I knew that you had to be personally motivated or there was no way to survive it. So there was a long period when I was looking at other people's material and considering trying to do something like that, and it was just incredible coincidence and serendipity that I came across Jonathan's material when I did.
Were you tempted to include any of the shtetl storylines from the book or did you choose to just focus on the short story?
I focused just on the short story for a number of reasons, primarily because if I had to do it all again and I had endless amounts of money and time I would make a trilogy, and it would be my Illuminated Lord Of The Rings thing. But I didn't have the time and the money, and I needed to find a way to take an extremely tangential book and find a way to deliver an active narrative that spanned the industry standard of two hours and was within the realm of a very modest budget, meaning that period stuff would be very very difficult and costly. And I did feel confident having really begun the idea of the adaptation primarily from the short story A Very Rigid Search, I did feel confident that the central narrative was in many ways a distillation of the essence of the novel.
Did Jonathan have any involvement with the screenplay?
Yeah, well we talked a lot about what kind of movie we would make if we were ever given the opportunity to make one, and he read every draft of everything I ever wrote, but really didn't want to write, and I understood he was already working on his second novel at the time, and was very busy. But I would call him from time to time and run things by him, so yes, in a sense he was present.
What does he think of the finished film?
It was very recent, because he's been very busy, he said to me, the last line of the very long email he sent to me that was very moving to me, was he was 'happy that I had made something that both of our grandfathers would be proud of'. That was the right thing to say, Jonathan is very good at finding the right thing to say.
Did working on the film inspire you to explore your own Jewish heritage further?
Well I didn't have a choice, the film was my own heritage. Part of the research for the film was that I would fly to Ukraine, rent a car, get a cameraman and we would mimic the journey in the novel, so we went from Kiev to Odessa looking for my grandfather's village. And we didn't find it but we had a really good time, and I learned a lot of Ukranian, and ate a lot of strange things and had a really great time.
How much of a challenge was it to film such a large percentage of the movie in Russian? Do you speak any Russian yourself?
Very little. But you see, everybody sees that as this huge hurdle and to me that was one of the main bonuses of the movie, that the audience was in on this wonderful joke where we could see how people who speak another language screw with somebody who doesn't speak that same language, and while it was a literary device in the book you have this wonderful opportunity with subtitles in the film, so you can be in on that joke, not to mention the malaprops and the hybrid use of English and Russian. We had five interpreters on set a Ukranian interpreter, a Czech interpreter, an English one for the Russians and the Czechs and an interpreter who I wasn't sure what language they were interpreting, it was a real Tower of Babel that set, but I also really enjoyed that, it was reflective of our narrative.
At what point did Elijah Wood come on board?
Very early. Part of the process of financing the film is that the people financing the film want to know very early on who the actors are going to be, in order to feel secure about their investment, and the first step was to find somebody who could play the role who could make them feel secure in their investment. The ideas about casting for the other parts that I had were very risky as far as they were concerned, so it was very important to us to secure Elijah first.
Did he know much about Jewish culture, did you have to give him a crash course in the basics?
We would talk about things occasionally, but I don't know if it was about Jewish culture or just my personal neuroses or Jonathan's personal neuroses that we blamed on being Jewish. But no, it wasn't a huge issue to me. For me the character was based in the idea of an empty vessel, of someone who is clinically and obsessively collecting and grabbing at objects in order to have some sense of memory or self, and has very little sense of his own culture and that's why he's doing that, that's something he earns over the course of the narrative.
Where did you come across Eugene Hutz?
He is the frontman of a band called Gogol Bordello who I am a huge admirer of. He hadn't done any acting before to this extent, but for me the whole focus, the whole time, was getting Eugene up to speed. He's such a naturally gifted person and so charismatic, he owns that character. But it was about scale and timing, and it was really fun to, you know, kind of to go through that with him.
What was the most challenging aspect of the film?
There's a scene shot in a field of sunflowers, and for that the credit belongs entirely to the line producer, the set designer and the cinematographer. We tried for the longest time to convince sunflower farmers to let us cut a swathe out of their crop and build a house, and that didn't go well, and finally Mark Garrity and Tom Kernowski came up with the ludicrous idea that we would grow our own sunflowers, and so we went out and rented a field, and Matty and I stood out there with a compass and an almanac, and he figured out where the sun would be two months down the road so that theoretically the sunflowers would blossom if all went well so as the sun came over the hill the sunflowers, which follow the trajectory of the sun, would be facing camera for our crane shot. So I was convinced it wouldn't work, and it was a huge mistake, and I was preparing to find another way to articulate the souls of Trachimbrod and Lista's house, and they did it, and I just remember showing up two days before we shot the scene, and then the day we shot the scene, putting the crane up and sure enough, at 9.30 the sun came over the hills and the sunflowers sort of popped up straight towards the camera and were ready for their close-up. It's a miracle that it all worked and an incredibly feat of planning and organisation. The day we left, they started to sag. Amazing.
Why did you decide to film in Prague rather than the Ukraine?
Well, I felt as a first-time filmmaker, my producers and I both felt that given my lack of experience we needed as experienced a production support system as we could find, and in Eastern Europe that is Matthew Stillman's company, an old friend of mine, and it just made sense for us to shoot there. I love Prague, I had shot there before which is kind of where I got the idea. But I didn't see much except locations as it was 18 hour days.
What did you find was the most challenging aspect of being a director?
The hours are brutal, but I think the most difficult part is once you're finished, dealing with reactions to your work, because that's never something I've been very good at. I like the actual work and I like the inventiveness and I like the collaboration and I like the process but I don't like having to sit and take responsibility for it, I've never been very good at that. But it's a very important part, the most important part as far as the studios are concerned.
How has the Jewish community received the film?
Very well, thankfully. I think people particularly in America are just starved for kind of cultural diversity and a sense of relatedness. I know in Jewish communities people are so interested in feeling connected, and it really is lovely the way Jews do that, they're so adamant and vehement about feeling connected, it's a wonderful quality. And even if they're in some obscure place like Ukraine, the idea that they have a connection, that there are roots that range beyond the American continent. There's that wonderful section in the Haggadah where these incredibly long boring explanation of who's related to who, that I think is so typically Jewish. Why do we need to know that? Because you need to know that you're related, you're connected, and I love people, particularly older people, coming up to me and telling me where their relatives are from. There's something very warm about it.
Having had the experience of directing, would you do it again?
I'd love to. I really loved it, the range of experience and the challenge, and I learned a lot and felt that it just made me want to do it again. Right now I'm hovering to see if I'll be invited again but I certainly enjoyed the experience.
Would you be keen to do more Jewish themed projects?
It's not necessarily that a project's Jewish for me, although I identify with being Jewish, so when I think about material that affects me personally that's one of the arenas I react to.
So tell us a bit about your Jewish background.
It was like a lot of reform Jews, it was more cultural than it was faith-based, and there was a lot of that kind of Jewish mother stuff, of reminding me of the intellect and talent of Jews over the centuries, and a real sense of pride in the cultural aspects of being Jewish, and we would have Seders every year that my grandfather would oversee, that were wonderful hilarious family gatherings that would always end up with a lot of silly drunken behaviour and scatological jokes, and of course the ecstasy of finding the Afikoman. Then that was pretty much is. When I was a small child, because we went through a period when my mother was a cab driver and on welfare and we were living in squats, she wanted to get me out of the city for the summer and we didn't have the resources, so when the Hasidic Jews came by and asked if I was Jewish, my mother said, 'yes he is', and they invited me to go to their Orthodox camp in Liberty, New York. So I spent a summer with the Orthodoxy in Liberty, which in fact for many people would be an awkward experience, but I actually thoroughly enjoyed it because I was a pretty good athlete when I was a little kid, and because all the other kids were so studious I ended up kind of being the Michael Jordan of the Hasidic camp.